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There’s nothing ‘natural’ about a natural disaster

Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey

August 29, 2017
5 min read

Hurricane Harvey. Image: NASA
Here is the Wikipedia entry for Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged Central America in 1998:

‘From October 29 to November 3, Hurricane Mitch dropped historic amounts of rainfall in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, with unofficial reports of up to 75 inches… Nearly 11,000 people were killed with over 11,000 left missing by the end of 1998. Additionally, roughly 2.7 million were left homeless.’

Hurricane Harvey is likewise turning into a mainly rainfall event for Houston and its environs, but at this time the death toll in the face of extensive and massive flooding and precipitation close to that of Mitch stands at 10. Even if that increases disproportionately, nothing will take it anywhere near the 11,000 death toll from Mitch.

Current estimates (probably low) are that 30,000 will be left homeless by Harvey compared to the 2.7 million by Mitch. (On the other hand, the property damage from Harvey will be far, far greater than that from Mitch. Hope the insurance companies can manage.)

While no two hurricanes are exactly alike, these differences are largely due to economic, political and infrastructural conditions. The wealthier the economy and the more sophisticated the physical and social infrastructures and the information streams, the better protected populations are from traumatic human losses, even when the property damage is far greater.

Natural disasters are social and class events.

Differential impacts

This becomes even clearer when the differential distributional impacts within a hurricane or earthquake event are put under the microscope. With Katrina, it was the poor and the marginalised (largely African-Americans) in New Orleans who died or were left destitute.

Such marginalised populations typically live in more vulnerable areas with lower property values, inferior information, unreliable infrastructures and fewer social protections (such as insurance). Rescue operations and emergency life and fiscal supports typically reach such populations last (if at all).

Analogously, the hurricane that swept through property markets in the USA in 2007-8 likewise dispossessed low-income black and Hispanic populations of roughly two thirds of their asset values, while wealthier white populations were less affected. It will be interesting to see the data on differential impacts on Houston as time elapses.

Developers and their allies in finance and state governments typically race ahead with their projects in cities like Houston with as little concern for environmental impacts and vulnerabilities as possible. Resurfacing the city space with tarmac and concrete changes run-off and drainage conditions. These have huge impacts when a hurricane finally arrives (as New York also found with Sandy).

But wait! There is a solution! The up-scale post-Sandy condo being built across the way from me on the East River front of Manhattan has emergency equipment located on the 48th floor. It is designed to be self-sufficient in the event of a hurricane for at least a week, and to keep refrigerators and phone chargers working indefinitely. Sacrificing the income from that 48th story penthouse is worthwhile, says the developer, given the premium residents will pay to continue their daily life in the building unfazed by any hurricane.

Disaster capitalism

Recovery is rarely designed to remedy the inequalities of impacts. It often makes matters worse. If the hurricane destroys housing and property on otherwise valuable land then in swoop the developers with up-scale projects to replace low-income but affordable residential neighbourhoods or traditional small-business industrial districts. If, as is usually the case, the social bonds that contributed to social life in the face of mass impoverishment are destroyed by displacement of low-income populations, then too bad.

For the more mobile rich this does not matter since their social bonds are not those of neighbourhood and locality. The economics of disaster capitalism, as Naomi Klein points out, are well entrenched in our political economy. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ is a motto that capital applies to hurricanes and earthquakes just as it does to economic crises.

In the times of hurricanes and other such events, however, populations typically look to government and the state to take care of problems as efficiently as possible. The perpetual critique of the ‘oppressive’ capitalist (but always called ‘socialist’) state suddenly turns into a demand that it exercise its paternal functions efficiently and well. This was a test that President Bush Jnr failed most miserably with Katrina. It cost him a lot politically.

So here is the residual question that is currently hitting the newspaper headlines in the USA: ‘Is Trump ready for Harvey?’ We shall soon see.

David Harvey’s latest book, Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason, is published by Profile Books. He will be speaking on capitalism and technology at The World Transformed in Brighton in September.

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